We Have A Problem

November 1, 2013 glenn Uncategorized

We have a problem, and it’s serious and complex. But do we understand it? And unless we understand it, can we solve it?

Simply put, our problem is: “The earth is warming. It’s caused by burning fossil fuels which release CO2, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.” What is the solution? “Stop using fossil fuels.”

And if this seems too simple, it should. Earth’s climate is way more complex than this.

For 25 years or so, the climate movement, and climate science, has focused on this narrow analysis and solution for putting the brakes on climate change. While there may have been some successes, the net effect has been an escalation of emissions, atmospheric CO2 levels, and global temperatures. Melting ice. Rising sea levels. Let me count the ways. The costs have been estimated at over $1 trillion per year. Nearly 400,000 deaths annually are attributed to climate change. The situation is worsening. This should give us pause ….

Let’s look at the problem again. Global warming. It’s about warming. Heating the earth. We know that greenhouse gases trap heat. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This is familiar enough, so let’s start there.

CO2 is emitted by burning fossil fuels, but is also emitted by burning biomass, by decomposition of biomass and soil, and is released from the ocean in large quantities. It also cycles back into the ocean, biomass, and soil in greater amounts than are naturally released, so that what is emitted by humans is partially removed by these natural process. Nature is doing an enormous amount of work for us.

The net result is that more than half of the fossil carbon we burn is removed, and less than half of emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere. This is why the net annual measured increase of atmospheric CO2 is only about 2 parts per million (ppm) instead of nearly 5 ppm if none of the gas were removed by nature. We could be at 550 ppm right now. Thank you, Nature!

CO2 is only one of many greenhouse gasses. It’s the one that gets the most attention, but it’s not the one that contributes the most to the greenhouse effect. No, methane doesn’t contribute more than CO2, even though a molecule of methane traps more heat than CO2. The greatest contributor is … water vapor! It is more potent, and there is more of it than CO2 — 1-4% in the atmosphere, compared to 0.04 % for CO2.

Unlike CO2, the exact amount of water vapor in the atmosphere varies widely. As land and oceans heat up, more water evaporates. Clouds and water droplets form. Rainfall is scattered over the planet. Water can last 5 to 10 days in the atmosphere, compared to 150 years or more for CO2, but overall, planet wide, water vapor still maintains more volume in the atmosphere than CO2.

When water evaporates, it removes heat. A lot of heat — 540 calories per gram, or enough to heat 10 times that amount of water 54 degrees. Since the heat is removed, there is a cooling effect on the earth’s surface. The heat goes into the atmosphere along with the water vapor that was energized. When water vapor liquefies, it releases that heat, and because it is at much higher elevation in the cooler upper troposphere, some of the released heat radiates and exits the atmosphere. This results in cooler rainwater droplets, which in turn cool the earth.

Solar radiation consists of UV, visible, and also invisible infrared light, which is the heating portion of the spectrum. Aerosols, micron-sized particles suspended in the atmosphere, reflect much of the UV and IR radiation, and leave most of the visible light. Clouds also reflect considerable radiation. Even with cloud cover, we still receive plenty of sunlight, although noticeably less than without the clouds, which causes lower temperatures. Less light results in less heat.

Clouds are assisted in their formation by fine particles, certain chemical compounds, and airborne bacteria originating in forests. Gigatons of bacteria are emitted, which serve as nucleating sites for clouds and water droplets.

With the destruction of primary forests, widespread desertification, large-scale annual agriculture, and urbanization, large tracts of land have been become bare for long periods of time. An ever increasing portion of the earth’s surface is losing the cooling effect of trees and grasses.

On a sunny day in the summer, observe the temperature difference between bare soil or asphalt, and leaf surfaces, while also measuring air temperature in the sunshine. You’ll find the bare surfaces hotter, and the leaf surfaces cooler than the unshaded air temperature on a still day. Sunlight can energize a surface, generating heat, re-radiating as heat waves in the infrared spectrum. Greenhouse gasses capture this heat, contributing to a temperate climate, or to the planetary warming we are experiencing.

With all of this in mind, is the cause of global warming greenhouse gas emissions, or of the incapacitation of earth’s climate control system? Or both? All of these processes, some more than others, contribute to global climate control, and have done so for billions of years. They have been disrupted by deforestation, annual agriculture, overgrazing, removal of predators and keystone species from our ecosystems, overfishing, pollution, mismanagement, and bad policy. Some processes are well understood; some not so much. All are important.

In short, we do have a problem. Simply put, it’s that we misunderstand the problem.

Because burning carbon based fuels has raised the atmospheric CO2 level, it has been easy to focus on CO2 as the culprit causing warming, yet all of the evidence points to an array of mechanisms that affect the climate. While emissions do play a significant role, biomass, the oceans, and soil carbon do so as well. So do clouds, water vapor, and rain droplets. So do bare soil, transpiration of moisture from trees, and chemicals and bacteria coming from biological sources.

All of these should be part of a climate strategy. More vegetation covering bare earth could have a significant effect on the earth’s temperature. So could more soil carbon, and more moisture transpiration. So could more clouds. These can add the necessary complement to emission reductions to not only slow down global warming, but to reverse it.

Though the problem is more complex than most realize, the solution, still a sizable undertaking, is relatively simple. The common thread here is life. Life is earth’s skin, its lungs, and its immune system. Life can protect earth’s surface, heal its wounds, and with enough new, green growth and topsoil, breathe and recycle all of that extra CO2. With more life, we can once again have a healthy and abundant planet.

This will not happen without our help. The destruction needs to stop, and legacy damage needs to be undone. Sure, stop fossil emissions, but do not fail to recycle the CO2 into biomass and soil, increase moisture transpiration, nucleation, and clouds, provide cover for the earth’s surface wherever it makes sense to do so, and do it soon!

See Reverse Global Warming’s Resources page for some amazing possibilities, or contact glenngall at gmail dot com for presentations or consulting.

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